As alcoholic beverages go, wine would seem to be among the simplest to produce, requiring little more than grapes, water and time; after all, humans have been producing the potable for over 6,000 years. But the modern, industrial-scale wineries of makers such as E&J Gallo, the company behind the Carlo Rossi and Barefoot brands, have little in common with the Copper Age vessels of the earliest vintners—and their products also contain ingredients that would have astounded their Neolithic forefathers.
Take, for example, the coloring agent known as “Mega Purple.” The substance, a thick concentrate of grapes from the “Rubired” cultivar, adds a rich redness and jammy sweetness to any batch of wine. Mega Purple is astoundingly potent: 200 milliliters is enough for an entire wine barrel of 119 liters (less than two-tenths of a percent of the finished product). Although few winemakers openly admit to using the additive, anonymous industry sources estimate that nearly 25 million bottles per year contain some Mega Purple, including several ultra-premium brands.
While Mega Purple adds flavor, sulfur dioxide prevents it from being lost. The chemical acts as an antimicrobial and antioxidative agent, fighting the negative effects that can come from improper wine storage. Yeast naturally produce small amounts of sulfur dioxide during fermentation, around 10 parts per million, but winemakers often add more to ensure the quality of their products. However, high levels of the gas can cause some people to have allergic or sensitive reactions, including asthma, stomach upset and dizziness.
The speed of wine production has also increased thanks to chemical additives. Aging in oak barrels, a lengthy and expensive process, adds flavors known as aromatic compounds and is considered an integral part of making fine wines. When winemakers don’t have the time or money to spend, they can add these flavors directly through oak essence, a concentrate that imparts vanilla, spice and coconut aromas. While oak essence is certainly convenient, it can’t replace the other benefits of oak aging, such as tannin reduction and the improvement of clarity and color.
In response to these practices, a growing number of winemakers have begun to market additive-free wines. Consumer acceptance has been a challenge; without the benefit of added sulfur dioxide, for example, a wine can become murky or become spoiled in transport. But, as sommelier Hugues Lepin explains, there are some definite positives to additive-free production: “I’m often being asked by customers to choose a wine that won’t give them a hangover and I always choose a wine that’s been made with little sulphur dioxide.”